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Instilled with paralyzing fear by a future no less uncertain than it was four years prior, and also by the realization that I’d let opportunity after opportunity fly by without so much as a second thought, the final year of my undergrad was something of a mess. I was exhausted, I was frustrated, and out of that perpetual uneasiness grew an inability to reconcile my present with any sort of future wherein I found myself socially, creatively, or professionally fulfilled.
It was during this time that I discovered Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (1979). I couldn’t tell you exactly how or when, only that I was immediately transfixed. And to this day, I’ve yet to experience another album that captures so vividly and so intensely the suffocating effect of hopelessness. It’s an album that’s intimately apocalyptic in its documenting of lead singer Ian Curtis’ battle with depression and epilepsy, which ultimately culminated in 1980 with his suicide during preparations for the band’s first American tour.
For Curtis, the very short period in which the band found success was marked by a simultaneous and equally rapid decline in health. It was only two years after their official formation in 1977 that Joy Division found their big break with Unknown Pleasures, and Curtis’ official diagnosis with epilepsy had arrived just a few months before its recording.
“The doctor said to him when he was diagnosed with epilepsy, ‘If you live a quiet life, no loud noises, no alcohol, you should be okay.’ Being in a group does not let you do any of those. And he didn’t want to give the group up…He had a terrible dilemma with himself.” Bassist Peter Hook explained in an interview with Rolling Stone. But despite his physical and mental deterioration, punctuated by numerous failed prescriptions and worsened by a lifestyle of constant travel, performances, and substance abuse, the extent of Curtis’ suffering never fully dawned on those around him.
“I honestly thought Ian’s lyrics were really brilliant, but that he was writing about somebody else,” Stephen Morris revealed to Uncut in a 2010 feature. “That’s how naive I was. I thought it was brilliant how he could get in the mind of somebody else.” In the same piece, Bernard Sumner echoed his bandmates’ disbelief: “It wasn’t until after his death that we really listened to Ian’s lyrics and clearly heard the inner turmoil in them…He never talked to us or indicated anything about any deep-seated problems he may have had but, sadly, it was there in his words, right from the start.”
“I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand,” Curtis begins on album opener “Disorder”, a triumphant blend of punk and dance that crescendos to an even more triumphant finale. Ironically, it’s also the most high-energy portion of the album, which sees Curtis repeatedly and emphatically mourns his inability to experience or even understand “the pleasures of a normal man” — a staggering distillation of the oppressive bleakness to follow.
On Unknown Pleasures there are no fantasies of happiness or healing to be found. It’s hard to imagine those words even holding any weight in a soundscape as dreary and claustrophobic as this one. The combination of strung out guitars, sharp percussion, and piercing synth filtered through multiple layers of distortion creates an environment of instability that’s constantly reinforced by a smattering of abrupt sound effects, from shattering glass and gunshots to ghastly echoes and harsh breathing. Everything is so in tune with the ambience of anxiety.
Because of that, I compulsively avoided learning anything about Joy Division for a long, long time. My initial experience with Unknown Pleasures was akin to a child witnessing magic for the first time. Here was a project that perfectly articulated a sense of impending doom at a time in my life when traditional narratives of post-college optimism were burning to the ground. By preserving its secrets, I hoped to also preserve its nigh-mythical resonance.
Such was the case until last year, when I finally sought out the answers I’d avoided for so long. Though I wasn’t surprised to learn of the circumstances leading to Curtis’ passing, my heart sank nonetheless; for a young man with whom I felt connected not because we faced the same challenges — I can’t stress this enough — but simply because I found solace in hearing someone other than myself confess to an all-consuming despondency. I was surprised, however, by one particular detail about the manner in which Curtis was found, listening to another record I hold as dearly as I do Unknown Pleasures.
It’s my sophomore year and I’m standing in the centre of an American Apparel, killing time as I wait for a girl I kinda sorta have a thing for. She’s around the corner and I’m nervous. I’m panicking. I don’t want to be there anymore. And then, blasting straight out of the store’s unexpectedly impressive sound system, it hits me – a riff so filthy, so aggressively confident in its messiness, it convinces me to stick around if only to hear this incredible piece of work through to its end.
Within a minute, it’s obvious to me that the song identified as “Sister Midnight” is one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard. Within a month, so is the album on which it appears: Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (1977).
If Unknown Pleasures depicts the consequences of being unable to escape an interior prison borne of dread, despair, and illness, The Idiot poses a simple question: if escape is impossible, then why not retreat further into your psyche, however damaged and dejected it may be? If the slow climb to good health and happiness is a Sisyphean struggle against the darkest, most vulnerable aspects of your identity, perhaps there’s a perverse joy to be found in surrendering to your misery, relishing the thrill of the fall.
The late 1960s saw Iggy and The Stooges thrust into infamy as a result of his music, often referred to in retrospect as the spark behind the punk revolution; his persona, antagonistic and unabashedly fueled by just about every drug under the sun; and his style of performance, heavy on self-mutilation, indecent exposure, and abject horror. That volatility routinely undermined the band’s ability to function in their personal and professional lives, and after a string of break-ups in the 70s incited by each member’s individual battle with alcoholism and heroin addiction, Pop’s career dwindled to a standstill.
In a CBC interview one week before the release of the The Idiot, responding to host Peter Gzowki’s claim that his sabbatical was simply a result of his earlier work having flamed out, Pop reflected on the years leading up the album: “I became very nasty and paranoid. And I became very vicious. I became a guy I don’t like. And so I stopped working, because it was immoral what I was doing.”
Conceived by David Bowie as an opportunity for Pop to flush out his demons following a rehab stint in a psychiatric ward, The Idiot plays out like the drug-addled odyssey of a man who has wholeheartedly embraced his decline into madness, saddling up and riding that pony straight to hell only to find out said pony is already mounted to Satan’s carousel of chaos, where it will continue to spin, round and round and round again until he’s dead, or worse, sober.
It’s the musical equivalent of waking up from one horror and immediately facing another upon falling back asleep. Case in point: in a scathing glance at the depths of our protagonist’s depravity, a late night booty call reveals itself as a violent Oedipal tragedy (“Sister Midnight”); the cold, expressionless recollection of dancing and debauchery ascribes a purgatorial soullessness to the pursuit of fun and camaraderie (“Nightclubbing”); and seemingly innocent relationships morph into twisted power fantasies, in one case even doubling as an analogy for Western imperialism and drug withdrawal (“China Girl”).
The Idiot is nothing if not boisterous, scattered, and silly. And given its production, an eclectic mix of rock, blues, and electronic, it’s easy to overlook even the most sincere moments of introspection. But the darkness that drives The Idiot’s absurdity becomes much more pronounced on the album’s Side B, which sees Pop without recourse or regret as he spurns the present, dismisses love, and sacrifices his agency in favour of obsessive nostalgia, self-loathing, and conformity. You know, the stuff of nightmares.
In that sense, The Idiot is a far cry from Unknown Pleasures, which, for all its doom and gloom, exists far outside the realm of nightmares. The profound sorrow that permeates the latter album is explicitly grounded in the lived-in present of its narrator, mapped onto a fragile physicality via Curtis’ grave vocals and morose imagery focused on external discomfort.
Consider the unsettling “She’s Lost Control”, an onlooker’s account of a woman coping with a series of seizures, both faced with the brutal realization that they’re fundamentally powerless against the spontaneity and severity of her condition. The epiphany renders their environment borderline dystopian, especially in conjunction with tracks like “Days of the Lord” and “I Remember Nothing”, which depict a society torn apart by rampant death and isolation. The picture is clear: at any given moment, you could be the victim of tortuous emotional and physical pain, and there’s nothing you or anyone you love can do about it.
That element of dystopia exists on The Idiot as well, but again, less as a corporeal reality and more as a nebulous prison in the back of your mind, constantly reconfiguring itself to reflect your greatest fears, and from which you’ll never return if you get too close. The Idiot’s final track, “Mass Production”, is a fittingly grand testament to that dynamic. Resigning himself to being just another cog in the machine, instantly replaceable and with no real purpose other than to mechanically repeat his mistakes until death, Pop’s wailing is slowly drowned out by an overwhelmingly robotic soundscape.
Together, Unknown Pleasures and The Idiot present a fascinating exploration of whether or not anyone can truly recover from their traumas. And in that pursuit, I’ve always interpreted both albums as ultimately coming to the same conclusion. Which is to say, no, at least not if the goal is to return to an “unbroken” state of being — that paradigm doesn’t adequately represent the day-in-day-out struggle of illnesses such as addiction and depression.
There is no on/off switch. There is no safe zone; in the same way the passing of a loved one may give new life to otherwise mundane places and artifacts, the worlds that Iggy Pop and Joy Division — Ian Curtis, in particular — inhabit have been irrevocably transformed by the scars of their internal battles. As such, there is no waking moment in which there is no fight. And the shared tragedy of both albums, I think, is that the narratives of suffering on each continue to intensify despite that knowledge.
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